There are more than 2,800 miles of Canadian land stretched between Stonington, Maine, and Juneau, but the two communities share a focus on something much more vast: the ocean and the fish it contains.
For the past two years, this common bond has provided the basis for a collaborative art project, “Swapping Fish Tales.” The project’s culminating presentation, an original play called “Dear Fish,” opens Friday.
Students from Glacier Valley Elementary School and Thunder Mountain High School, led by director Ryan Conarro, will perform “Dear Fish,” at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Thunder Mountain High School auditorium. The play, written by local playwright Dave Hunsaker, draws on student-gathered interviews and images from both Juneau and Stonington. Fishing stories from each community will be presented through students’ portrayal of the real-life fishermen and other locals they interviewed.
In one scene, “The ones who’ve always fished here,” Glacier Valley student Savannah Strang portrays Tlingit elder Nora Marks Dauenhauer.
“Keixwnéi is my name in Tlingit. Nora Marks Dauenhauer is my other name. Salmon is more than our food...” she begins.
Glacier Valley student Roy Tupou, her Maine counterpart, then takes up his role as an elderly Maine fisherman.
“Donald Trundy, Deer Isle, Maine,” Tupou announces before beginning his story.
Now in his 80s, Trundy is the only interviewee who ever fished cod, Conarro said. His words, like Dauenhauer’s, present a historical perspective on fishing.
“It’s a nice scene because (Hunsaker) puts them opposite each other and you’re really seeing history through those two people’s angles,” Conarro said.
In some cases, students were able to draw on real life experience to get into their roles. Thunder Mountain sophomore Marie Petersen said she asked to be given her role due to a personal connection with the fisherman.
“I play Bonnie Millard — she’s a fisherman here and a wonderful lady,” she said. “I know her, she’s a family friend. She’s amazing and I feel really privileged to play her.”
Petersen also brings to the role her own experience on boats and perspective as part of a fishing family.
“My dad commercial fishes, so it’s really great for me to see a play being done about my life and about what my family’s going through.”
In addition to highlighting individual stories, the play traces common themes through both locations, sometimes touching on difficult topics.
“There’s a scene about some of the best days ever on the water, and there’s a scene about some of the hardest or worst experiences on the water, and then there’s a real meaty scene about regulations,” Conarro said. “And that’s a scene where you get a glimpse of how things have differed in Alaska and Maine.”
Most of the interviews were conducted with fishermen, but other fish-related professionals were also included, such as NOAA’s Mandy Lindeberg. For the Maine material, Hunsaker gathered additional information about Ted Ames, a fisherman and influential independent researcher who studied the decline of Atlantic cod stocks. Like the young interviewers in the play in which he is featured, Ames’ based his research on stories and anecdotal information he gathered from older fishermen, from Gloucester to Canada.
Stonington, a community of 1,150 residents, is Maine’s largest lobster port. Landings in Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, account for 15 percent of the state total, according to Maine’s Department of Marine Resources.
Like Juneau, the town is also known for its physical beauty and strong arts community.
Conarro traveled to Maine to watch the Stonington students’ performance of “Dear Fish” in April, along with Juneau teachers Nancy Peel and Kristin Garot. Two teachers from Maine will come to Juneau this week to watch the performance.
Conarro said it was very well received in Maine.
“I think people really were not prepared for it to be more than your ‘regular elementary school play,’” he said. “So I think (they were surprised by) the complexity and the sophistication of the script. And the student performances were really strong.”
Garot said Stonington reminded her of Haines and was a bit more remote than she expected. The town is located on the far end of Deer Isle, in Penobscot Bay, which is connected to mainland Maine by a bridge. The nearest urban center is Bangor, about 90 minutes away.
“It was interesting to go to Maine and really see how similar and different our communities are, and how similar rural Maine is to rural Alaska,” Garot said. “I’d never been to Maine.”
She was also grateful for the chance to connect with her counterparts on the East Coast.
Garot said more than 100 students from Glacier Valley and Thunder Mountain have been involved in the project. The play itself involves about 35 elementary students and 12 high school students, she said, with the high schoolers carrying the majority of the speaking roles.
Many students are also involved in the musical elements of the play. Hunsaker based the play’s songs on traditional sea shanties, adding original lyrics.
The idea for the exchange project began in 2008 at a Partners in Education meeting in Washington, D.C. At the meeting, Annie Calkins, education Committee Chair for the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, connected with Linda Nelson, executive director of Opera House Arts, a nonprofit that performs a role in the community similar to our JAHC.
The Partners in Eduction program, run by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is designed to strengthen the relationships between arts organizations and school systems, and through that bond to provide professional development for teachers and creative opportunities for students. Calkins and Nelson hit upon the idea of becoming partners within the partners program andhpresented their idea to the Kennedy Center, who liked it.
“(The Kennedy Center) had never funded a partners of partners project like that before so they thought it would be cool,” Conarro said.
Primarily focused on the arts, from theatrical to visual, the bicoastal project has also touched on other areas of students’ education, such as history, resource management, and geography. And it has benefitted not just the students, but their teachers, who have participated in a parallel exchange in facilitating the process and by swapping teaching artists for staff training.
“That was a major goal of the project as well, Garot said. “When we brought in the teaching artists, they did work with our students but also did stuff with us.”
In 2009, students and staff learned digital arts techniques with visiting Maine artist Sheridan Kelley, then applied those skills to collect and share stories gathered from local fishermen, in some cases using video. Conarro helped the students with interviewing techniques.
Later that year, Maine artist Sarah Doremus and local artist Sarah Conarro (Ryan’s sister) visited the schools to help students and staff incorporate visual arts into their production, through creating props and digital projections. Local filmmaker Brice Habeger also worked on the project to help students display their images.
Other teachers involved in addition to Garot and Peel are: Florence McFarlin, Kim Frangos, Jessie Wilson, Susan Sielbach, Susie Denton, Lorrie Heagy and Rod Crist from Glacier Valley; and Megan Bush, Jan Niemeyer and Kathleen Galau from Thunder Mountain.
Though they’ve been learning a lot, students’ assessments of the project tended to focus on how fun it’s been.
Glacier Valley fourth-graders Tristan Gleaton and Connor Guizio said they were enjoying acting, a new experience for both.
“It’s pretty cool,” Gleaton said.
“It’s fun,” Guizio said. “It’s kind of like work and fun.”
For Petersen, getting to play Millard stoked an already bright spark. Though she’s seen first-hand the difficulty of trying to support a family on a fisherman’s income, she is more than willing to give it a try.
“I have been on the boat since I was three weeks old,” she said. “I’m such a daddy’s girl. I go out there, I clean fish, I ice fish. I love being out on the water.
“There’s just something magical about it to me.”